Trial by fire : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Trial by fire

by Tad Gage and Joe Harb

We travel around the tobacco world with our tasting, sampling some newer and familiar house blends from the always-creative Boston-area tobacconist Watch City Cigar Co. (; new offerings from IMP, a meerschaum pipe importer that has introduced Turkish-style blends with the meer in mind; and two Semois (pronounced sem-wah) tobaccos from Belgian grower and producer Vincent Manil.

Supplies of Manil’s La Brumeuse Semois have been scarce in the United States, and his Bouchons de Semois (pronounced boo-shawn), a V-shaped cigar-like plug, has been virtually unobtainable. The folks at The Pipe Guys ( have worked with Manil to obtain a greater supply of both tobaccos, so while supplies of this artisan product are limited, we’re pretty confident your chance to acquire some is more than a mere pipe dream. You don’t have to be Johnny Depp, who dropped by Manil’s shop, factory and tobacco museum in Belgium (where the tobaccos are readily available for purchase), to get your hands on Semois.

The story of Semois is a long one, but the short version is that about 400 years ago (remembering that formally cultivating and hybridizing the native weed was still in its infancy), an enterprising Belgian brought home something resembling a Burley seed from the Americas. It was planted in the mineral-rich soil of the Ardennes region of Belgium, an unlikely home for tobacco: cool, cloudy and foggy, with rainfall averaging 19 days a month. Yet Semois thrived, and so over the centuries, it diverged significantly from most Burley cultivars we know today, although there is a familial resemblance. Semois illustrates how, time and again, the noble weed has demonstrated its chameleon ability to leverage soil and climate to thrive.

There are a few tips on maximizing the enjoyment of this peculiar product. First, it is intentionally packed drier than many tobaccos. A 3.5-ounce packet goes a long way. Manil says 60 percent humidification is perfect, and both forms can arrive a little crispy after their long journey. Both the Bouchons and thick-cut Semois can be given a boost of hydration in a sealed plastic container with a moist sponge, not touching the tobacco. The loose Semois can also be lightly sprayed with water and placed in a zip-seal bag for a couple days. The Bouchons cannot be directly moistened until just before smoking.

Tight packing for the medium shag La Brumeuse is helpful to slow combustion, but otherwise it’s like any pipe tobacco mixture. The Bouchons, which contains finely cut Semois with a cigar-leaf wrapper and cap, is a bit daunting at first. You might think the best option is to find a pipe large enough to get as much of the plug into the bowl as possible. The proper technique to smoke these V-shaped bouquets of tobacco is in the smallest-diameter pipe bowl possible that can hold the plug stable, with as little of the plug in the bowl as possible. The pipe functions as a cigar or cheroot holder. Lightly moisten the bottom half of the Bouchons in your mouth, which enables the tobacco to expand slightly, creating a remarkably good seal with the bowl (very similar to the air packing method).

Cut an X in the sealed top (the bottom of the plug is open) with a sharp knife or razor blade, light gently and start puffing. Granted, the arrangement looks odd, especially as it burns and you appear to have an ash-topped ice cream cone sticking out of your pipe. Once the burning plug approaches the bowl rim, you should remove it and treat it as you would a cigar butt. Although advertised as a long smoke, if the tobacco is smoked as dry as received, it’s closer to 20 minutes.

It’s like smoking a cigar vertically, and it can be a bit messy. Gently tap off the ash as it burns (it’s very fluffy and doesn’t hold together like a cigar does). It’s a good candidate for outdoor smoking on a calm day, with an ash tray nearby, and perhaps held away from one’s lap. Semois is quirky, fun and a tip of the hat to a true artisan tobacco product, grown, harvested and aged much like fine grapes harvested from a few acres or even rows in that relatively tiny region fondly known as Bordeaux, France. —Tad Gage

Manil Semois La Brumeuse Thick CutSemoois-label-back-(2)
In its package, the mixture smells like open pastures and manure: earthy and musty, yet fresh. It’s like nothing I’ve ever smelled in a tobacco, but it’s oddly compelling. Packed properly, the tobacco burns evenly and cool. I found lighting the center of the bowl and allowing the embers to travel to the edges worked best. Being an unblended, single-terroir product, the flavor is rustic and uncomplicated. A blend of well-aged and younger leaf to promote consistency from batch to batch, it has a rugged, slightly smoky character that reflects Manil’s roasting process. The flavor is akin to a Burley with cigar overtones, without any bitterness. A light perfume of dried lavender dances through the smoke, with hints of peat moss, loam, thyme and a stony quality reflecting the soil’s high mineral content. As the nicotine builds halfway through the bowl, it lends a modest sweetness, but the nicotine is not overwhelming.

I lightly moistened enough of the blend for several bowls and kept it in a zip-seal bag for a day. I liked what that did to tame the mixture’s combustion speed. While La Brumeuse may be packed at the perfect moisture level, I think the long journey to my doorstep in a paper foil package resulted in it being drier than intentioned. It leaves a light ghosting that lightly but not unpleasantly influenced a couple of subsequent bowls and then disappeared. More than a novelty, La Brumeuse is something genuinely unique, delicious and worth procuring.

Harb: This is a Virginia blend in ribbon cut that is offered deliberately in a dry form. The blend has a sweet and fruity tin aroma. Once stoked to embers, it produced lots of flavor and body, as well as a high volume of smoke. The flavor was intense, with pungent earthy and bitter notes that gave the blend a stout depth. It also burned relatively fast with the dried tobacco. I moistened the tobacco a bit for a second trial and found it had slightly less flavor, but the level of body was the same. This sample burned a bit slower. If you’re looking for an intense flavor that is quite enjoyable, you should try the Semois Thick Cut.

Other tobaccos reviewed in this issue’s installment of “Trial by Fire” include:

Manil Bouchons de Semois; IMP Meerschaum Magic; IMP Turkish Pride; IMP Alden; Watch City Old Black Magic; Watch City Slice; Watch City None of Your Business; Watch City Flake #558; Watch City Fat Bastard and Old Dominion. Read the rest of the reviews by subscribing to Pipes and tobaccos magazine or the online digital edition.

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Category: Summer 2014, Trial by Fire

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